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Bio-Fuels - New Oil Or New World Hunger?

As the World starts to regret using so much carbon-based fossil fuels, they have been inventing alternative fuels and the one getting the most attention is Bio-fuel.

This apparently 'great answer' to reducing our dependence on oil is taking the states by storm in particular, with gas stations offering various types of gas with differing amounts of bio-fuels in them - great for reducing your carbon footprint, right?

Well, maybe it's not a simple as a quick fix - and maybe it's not all just about carbon!

How are Bio-fuels made?
Various crops have been found to convert very well into ethanol and other similar compounds - and it is these volatile liquids which can then be used to generate energy (combined with existing fuels) to drive vehicles.

Fields of Corn/Maize, Sorghum, Sugar Cane, Soy and Palm Oil are all being grown across the Globe to generate these new bio-fuels for the developed countries that demand them. However, as you can imagine - if large areas of land are being farmed for fuel - then other factors become an issue.

1) Deforestation:
Large areas of land are being cleared of forests and human settlements to grow these 'in demand' crops for the developed nations.

In Argentina, it has been calculated that more than 2.3 million hectares have been cleared since 2005 alone for Soy, and there are plans afoot for a 1.8 million hectare Palm Oil plantation (the Worlds largest) to be created in the heart of a Borneo Rainforest - obviously the trees, wildlife and indigenous peoples will have to be cleared, moved or destroyed. Palm Oil has become the largest cause of deforestation in South-East Asia due to increasing demand for both the cosmetics industry and now bio-fuels.

2) Supply Of Grains:
The US is the worlds greatest exporter of corn - of so it was before it started producing it's own bio-fuels from it. As a result, it is not sending the corn out to other nations and they are finding themselves short of supply. As with everything in the world - shortage of supply means an increase in prices, so those countries that are still dependent on the corn are paying a lot more for it.

And it is not just corn - all grain prices have gone up as the demand on the land has pushed out other crops such as wheat and along with other environmental factors the consumers are suffering. Between 2004 and 2006 corn prices went up an estimated 54%, wheat 34%, soybean oil by an amazing 71% and sugar rose by an unbelievable 75%.

And it all got worse in 2007. The World Bank reported price increases of food by up to 83% between then and 2008. More than 40 countries have had food riots - and weekly grocery shopping is certainly eating away at my wages!

3) Fuel Or Food:
If vast areas of arable land are being turned over to growing crops for fuel - then where are we growing the food for humans to eat?

The massive demand for grains for fuel are pricing poor people of the world out of the food market. Talks are currently underway with farmers from India to sell their crops of sorghum and sugarcane to be used for ethanol production rather than for the food industry - and it's a better price! The US and other 'rich' countries have got more money to throw at such ventures, making it an impossible catch 22 for the farmers.

Either they get more for their crops - and as a business this makes sense, but then in effect can reduce reasonably-priced food available to themselves and their fellow countrymen. Or they can take less money for their work in the hope that whoever they sell their crops to doesn't do what they didn't and reap the rewards!

4) Carbon FootPrint:
The clearing of forests and the excessive amounts of land turned over for farming cannot possibly be reducing the effect of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

I have no doubt that the farming machinery used the Palm Oil and Soy land owners is not run on bio-fuels itself and are probably churning out more carbon that we are saving with our 5% bio-fuel diesel mix. The machinery used to clear the forests in the first place are another great source of carbon emissions too.

Then there is the impact of clearing the trees in the first place. Surely everyone knows that to counter-balance your own carbon emissions (such as flying) you should be planting trees. Trees absorb carbon, so if you are cutting them down it can only have a negative effect. And if you are cutting them down to sustain our lazy habit of driving everywhere then this can only double the negative effect.

Are Bio-fuels Sustainable?
Current evidence would be to suggest that 'No' they are not sustainable at all.

They compete with the human food supply, they destroy irreplaceable habitats across the globe to make way for huge monoculture farms. These farms divert organic matter away from the necessary ecosystems and basically take food from the poor to make fuel for the rich on the other side of the world.

As we all know - cleared rain-forest are not able to sustain farming for any length of time, and eventually become only good for cattle farming (another contentious argument for methane emissions). The cycle is known too well - the result = more forests destroyed for more farms.

What Is The Alternative?
Is there a sustainable people-friendly, environmentally-friendly method of producing a fuel for our current transport needs?

Or do we need to rethink our transport needs?

For more environment articles written by "TravelCat", visit http://www.ecofriendlyhouseandgarden.com

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posted by Kipas Repair JB @ 9:55 PM,


At Thursday, March 26, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well there are many obstacles to the biofuels way. Something like that isn't even economically viable to be put to worldwide scale.
But don't forget the effort that is being applied to second generation biofuels. These are made from lignocellulosic biomass. Agricultural, forestry and even residues of some industries generate biomass that can be converted to liquid fuels. And being the biomass the most abundant renewable resource on Earth, it could help us to resolve our a energetic problem.

At Monday, March 30, 2009, Blogger subversive said...

Hey, awesome article. I've been looking for a good summary about the downsides of biofuels. Again, its one of those things that sounds great when a politician says it to get some earmarks, but when you consider all the costs it becomes a much more stupid idea.

I linked to your blog on mine (http://subversiveguidetoeng.blogspot.com) Its a new site I started to give engineering undergrads some tips and perspective on engineering school and the discipline.

I've been looking for people in the different engineering subfields to give an inside look at their own field. I'm in electrical, so my knowledge about chemical eng is very basic. If you would ever be interested in writing a short post about the chemical engineering profession, let me know! (ps: You can get in touch with me at peter_gtt@NOSPAMhotmail.com)

At Wednesday, April 01, 2009, Blogger Unknown said...

How about 2nd generation of biofuel which known as cellulosic ethanol? I've got some info regarding this and currently there are several plants in USA using this technology to produce ethanol. The feedstock are mainly from Switchgrass and Miscanthus. It seems to be quite promising industry


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I’m Zaki. I used to be a project, process and chemical engineer. Few years ago I successfully became a Chartered Engineer (IChemE) and Professional Engineer (BEM). I'm now employed as a chemical engineering educator/researcher/consultant. Hope you like reading my blog. I welcome any feedback from you. My email: zaki.yz[alias]gmail.com. TQ!

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